The Seattle City Council this year has voted to slash police department funding in the next biennium by 18 percent and has enacted a new business tax that is now under legal challenge by the local business community. Meanwhile on the other side of Lake Washington, the Bellevue City Council plans to approve a 2020-21 operating budget that increases law enforcement funding while simultaneously closing a $16 million budget deficit – without imposing any new taxes. With the growing trend toward remote working and with increased concerns over public safety, both councilmembers and business organizations believe the budget protects Bellevue’s business climate.
“No region, no city can take advantage of their workforce or their company base,” Bellevue Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Joe Fain said. “You see the consequences of those cities that do. I see the Eastside, as a whole, setting a different example for how the public sector and the private sector work together. That extends beyond the Bellevue city limits, but it’s definitely something that we see in Bellevue.”
The Bellevue Downtown Association also supports the 2020-21 budget. Director of Public Policy Matt Jack wrote in a Dec. 3 statement that “while this budget doesn’t address some funding gaps needed to support future growth, it addresses the City’s most immediate priority – to bolster Bellevue’s resiliency against recession in order to ensure the City is poised for a swift recovery.”
Bellevue operates under a council-manager government in which the manager implements council policies and proposes budgets to the council. City Manager Brad Miyake, who was appointed in 2014, presented the budget proposal at the council’s Oct. 18 meeting. He said it “balances Bellevue’s history of fiscal responsibility with the needs of residences and businesses during this difficult time. This budget continues to fund the delivery of critical services in areas of public safety, public health…and continues to maintain and build upon the basic capital infrastructure of the city to prepare us to meet the growth challenges coming at the city.”
The proposed 2020-21 budget slightly increases total spending from the 2019-20 budget to $1.7 billion, while decreasing general fund spending by $2 million to $474 million. At the same time, the budget taps into reserves to increase spending for police to $102 million – a $2 million increase.
Funding for the Bellevue Fire Department is increased from $140 million to $163.7 million; the budget reduces planned spending in this area by not fully opening Fire Station 10 until 2023.
Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis told Lens that while “we’re facing an ongoing pandemic and economic recession and continued uncertainty…maintaining our core services was of the utmost concern and priority for us.”
He added that another priority was “staying within our means. A lot of the kudos should really go to past city councils that always kept us within budget and never spent beyond our limits. We’ve always had strong reserves, so thanks to that real responsible management and the growth of the city, that has put us in a better position than most.”
Economic development experts have previously emphasized the importance of public safety in fostering a healthy business environment. The robberies of numerous downtown Bellevue businesses in May amid rioting have also further emphasized the role local governments play in preserving public safety.
Fain noted that the city has struck a “positive balance” by preserving police funding while launching a use-of-force investigation and data analysis. “They recognize the need to reform and to continually improve policing, but at the same time it’s not necessary to sacrifice public safety while doing that.”
Although the budget does include a small utility rate increase, Nieuwenhuis said it’s unrelated to the economic downturn and helps preserve or repair aging infrastructure. “What we’ve seen and noticed is that typically those (rate) spikes happen when infrastructure fails, and you have to raise the money in order to fix it.
Fain says the absence of new revenue talk from the city not only helps keep business tax burdens down, but it also makes it easier to gain public support if needed. “The city leaders recognize they’re being viewed as good stewards of the money they’re given by taxpayer. The taxpayers will have greater faith in giving them additional resources when that time comes. When you face a budget crunch like they are now…the desire to maintain credibility and to show they’re being responsible with public money is very clear.”
He added that with Seattle “it’s not the tax that garners the most concern or opposition; it’s a lack of faith in how the money is going to be spent.”
The lack of tax proposals during an economic downturn may also have implications for cities such as Bellevue that have large tech presences at a time when COVID-19 restrictions have dramatically increased the use of remote working.
“You can’t take anything for granted anymore,” Fain said. “The decisions that would have normally taken 15 study groups and 10 years of deep, contemplative financial analysis…are now being made on the back of a napkin after crunching a few numbers. The change of pace has never been faster.”
“I think Bellevue has a strong reputation for being very business friendly, having a very strong infrastructure,” Nieuwenhuis said. “That so many…companies were able to pivot so quickly to a stay-at-home model shows why Bellevue is so favorable in terms of setting up shop for many tech companies.”
Both Nieuwenhuis and Fain also cited the Bellevue City Council’s cohesion despite differing political views, with Nieuwenhuis saying there was “almost unanimous support” for the budget proposal.
“What we’ve seen over and over again is their willingness to work together to come up with compromise that everyone can stand by and de-escalate the politics in situations so they can escalate the policy considerations,” Fain said. “That is worth protecting.”
The council will vote on the proposed budget at its Dec. 14 meeting.